Crippling Obama’s Counterinsurgency Strategy – Richard Sale

PashtunA critical component of Obama’s Afghan strategy – separating local Afghans from Taliban insurgents and then building social and economic programs that create local loyalty to the central government – is being nullified because of inadequate numbers of Afghan police who are illiterate, untrained and deserting in droves, congressional and other experts say.

Speaking of the current Marine assault into the southern province of Helmand, an administration official said: “Material support and strong and continuous aid are essential to our progress.” Adding, “The Taliban are counting on the United States and its allies to be unable to sustain a costly and interminable war.”

   The Obama strategy of “hold and build” is designed to defeat the insurgent’s strategy of attrition, he said.

   Yet so far, the beginning of Obama’s intensified Afghan campaign seems a huge, incoherent muddle, lacking in clear direction, a clear chain of command, and adequate numbers of U.S., allied and Afghan troops. For example, in a report just posted by CSIS Afghan expert Tony Cordesman, who spent two weeks with Gen. Stanley MacChrystal’s Afghan command, he noted that: “…the baseline for major expansions of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police (ANP) are goals for 2014.” Yet senior U.S. military officials are still talking about major results this year.

    According to DOD sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, the goal is to forge a true operational partnership between NATO, U.S. and the Afghan national forces. Funding for both Afghan groups is already under way, the rationale being that partnering with Afghan forces will prove far cheaper than trying to have NATO and the United States mount huge numbers of troops on their own.

The key task for the Afghan army is to capture territory under control of the Taliban, then hold it and separate the inhabitants from the insurgents.  Once territory is held, it can be built – meaning the inauguration of road construction, school construction, road repair, construction of irrigation systems and other civil projects designed to strengthen the allegiance of the inhabitants to the Kabul government.

According to congressional sources, the Afghan National Police is to perform the “hold” function for the various Afghan population centers which is essential to any counterinsurgency campaign. The pressing difficulty is that the condition of the ANP is currently so poor it doesn’t appear capable of performing that mission, sources said.

     Three factors are chiefly responsible.  For one, the ANP are poorly trained. According to recent statements by counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen, the ANP have no counterinsurgency courses, no counterinsurgency doctrine, and no personnel with counterinsurgency skills. According to Brookings Institution Afghan analyst, Vanda Felba-Brown, what the ordinary Afghan population wants “is suppression of ordinary street crime and the rule of law” yet the ANP’s own lawlessness is currently responsible for most crime.

Officially, the functions of the ANP are to man check points that monitor the movements of suspicious individuals, help identify IEDs and suicide bombers and provide intelligence, but Felba-Brown said that in fact the ANP is the institution seen by the populace as the “most corrupt and unresponsive of the needs of the people.”

She added that the police are an active part of criminal rings and that they have made a profitable industry of kidnapping, weapons smuggling, and have set up a dense network of checkpoints on busy roads where police extort huge fees from people using them. In addition, police extortion of farmers is so rampant, “they no longer attempt to transport their crops to market but use them as subsistence,” she said.

   Much of the ANP’s incompetence is due to a lack of adequate training but their mission of administering the rule of law is sidetracked and distorted by the sinister influence of power brokers or war lords. Afghan expert Gretchen Peters in a recent book “Seeds of Terror,” wrote of one power broker, Haji Juma Khan, as a criminal skilled in building networks and schemes to corrupt officials wherever he has chosen to operate.  Provincial governors’ security agents, officials in the Highway Police or regional military commanders were all his targets. U.S. officials report that many Taliban commanders have forged affective and close ties with Afghan police officials which have proved troublesome. A recent UN report detailed a complex system of kickbacks involving 36 districts where governorships, customs and police postings are up for auction with the job winners paying huge fees to senior officials to keep their place. Top police officials in key districts pay $10,000 a month for job security, Peters said.

Cordesman noted in his report that power brokers see any improvement in police efficiency as a threat to their own operations and are desperate to forestall it by any means. But Cordesman and others make clear that their activity can only be countered by making vast improvements in the ANP leadership.

Several sources including Velba-Brown and Cordesman said that only a major reorganization within the ANP can bring this about. What is urgently needed are paramilitary groups and gendarmeries capable of dealing with insurgents. These need to be strengthened and such groups should be able to defend themselves. Some would then be assigned to perform the “hold” function in urban areas while others would provide a lasting presence in remote rural areas.

Vetting of ANP members needs to be more thorough.  Cordesman said there needs to be an effort to “eliminate any remaining insurgent shadow government, justice systems and networks” in order to deal with organized crime and defeat power brokers involved in gross corruption.

   But the problem that looms over these ambitious plans is that they cannot be undertaken without the “big problem of reforming the Ministry of Interior,” as a congressional source said.  Much of the Hamid Karzai government is seen as corrupt, weak or oppressive since many of government officials see the government, not as providing for the public welfare, but as a machine for ensuring private enrichment, congressional sources said. Most of Kabul’s provincial and district governors have no popular backing in the areas they control, said these sources.

   Cordesman observed that the ANP can only work if they are linked to the creation of effective courts that are part of a criminal justice system that has managed to rid itself of corruption, a problem he described as “an urgent one for the Afghan people.”

  But congressional sources insisted the ANP must “clean up its own act first.” Alex Their of the U.S. Institute for Peace and Felba-Brown said that the ANP’s continuing misconduct is a key element undercutting U.S. efforts to win widespread Afghani support. Said Their: “A number of people in Taliban controlled areas have become neutral because they don’t support the Karzai government which has not presented anything positive that would be worth the risk of defying the Taliban.”

    The public’s dislike of the ANP is even more harmful to U.S. strategic aims since “the police are one government element that is in constant contact with the population,” a congressional source said.

  Another deeply troubling factor is the widespread use of drugs by the police. The Afghan police have more clashes with Taliban forces and suffer three times higher casualties than the Afghan army. As a result, their use of drugs “is pretty rampant,” said a congressional source.

“Police drug abuse should be a critical focus, but so far reform efforts have not been successful,” said Velba-Brown. Part of it is due to their training “being so minimal” and a troubling shortfall of qualified trainers.

  The other major problem is their high rate of desertion. According to Velba-Brown the retention rate for the ANP in Helmand province is only 20 percent, and between 20 and 40 percent in Kandahar, numbers verified by U.S. officials.

“Retention is a terrible problem,” said a congressional source.

    Obama is currently scrambling to pile police trainers and other resources thick and fast into training, but the resources are still lacking, said sources. As of July, the uniformed police had an authorized strength of 47,000 and 51,000 assigned. Yet only a small segment of Afghanistan’s 364 police districts exhibited any training activity, according to U.S. documents.

“There are very substantial problems looming on the horizon with respect to getting this program on its feet,” said Their.

Said Cordesman, “The build phase cannot be properly implemented unless the ANP has the capacity and integrity to support an effective civil rule of law by Afghan standards and custom.”

  But that goal appears to remain far in the future.






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7 Responses to Crippling Obama’s Counterinsurgency Strategy – Richard Sale

  1. F B Ali says:

    This would be comical if it weren’t so damn tragic!
    All these experts and leaders that Richard Sale quotes seem to believe that all that needs to be done to fix the ANP is reorganization, leadership, training, etc. Which world do they live in?
    The average ANP guy is an illiterate youth from the poorest strata of society, whose family paid a bribe to get him enrolled so that he could earn a living and, hopefully, alleviate their hardship. He doesn’t have any concept of state or country (very few Afghans have), or law and order, or service to the people. All he’s interested in is to survive and make some money for himself and his family (after paying the cut his superiors up the chain of command demand). He isn’t in the least interested in “holding and building”, or fighting the ferocious Taliban. It isn’t going to be any different in 2014.
    To see this huge, powerful country led down this garden path by idiots and conmen – it’s downright pathetic!

  2. Mark Stuart says:

    Amen F B Ali !
    I read somewhere that some Islamic Clerics (Saudis and else) have suggested sending a corps of their trained coreligionists to be sent to Afghanistan and Iraq to cope with the wave of “terrorists” and suicide bombers.
    It seems that many a wannabe suicide bomber or “terrorist” who lacks theological knowledge and is today rotting in some jail would have been more efficiently kept away from such extreme political course of action had he been exposed to the views and teachings of those Clerics who have clearly and publicly come out against suicide bombings and such destructive actions.
    Any thoughts on that perspective anyone?

  3. Bill Wade, NH says:

    “Child Rapist Police Return Behind U.S., UK Troops
    By Gareth Porter, IPS News. Posted July 29, 2009.”
    Just what we don’t need. Full article:,_uk_troops/?utm_source=feedblitz&utm_medium=FeedBlitzRss&utm_campaign=alternet
    Thank you so much Col for this education, been on vacation myself.

  4. curious says:
    The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is preparing a new strategy that calls for major changes in the way U.S. and other NATO troops there operate, a vast increase in the size of Afghan security forces and an intensified military effort to root out corruption among local government officials, according to several people familiar with the contents of an assessment report that outlines his approach to the war.

  5. David Habakkuk says:

    F B Ali,
    I think the difficulties you so trenchantly describe may reflect a more general problem, which haunts ‘nation-building’ projects.
    A nation is, first and foremost, a community of people who see themselves in a certain way: that is, as individuals, having something in common with other similar individuals, which is of transcendent importance in relation to their political loyalties. What this something is varies from case to case: culture commonly enters in, as do language and ethnicity, and religion can sometimes be critical — although it is not necessarily.
    If a nation, as it were, exists in people’s heads, then national institutions — like a national police — make sense and may perhaps be made to function effectively. Trying to create effective national institutions, if the nation does not exist in people’s heads, is a waste of labour.
    In relation to Afghanistan, a nation-building project implies that people in Washington or London could remodel the sense of themselves of people in Afghanistan: which is fatuous.
    Alien powers can create a sense of nationhood — but that is, commonly, in reaction against them. The role of Napoleon’s armies in creating German — and Russian — nationalism, or of the British in creating Indian nationalism, being cases in point.

  6. F B Ali says:

    You are right about the absolute need for a people to feel that they are a nation before national institutions can be built or can function effectively. The large majority of the Afghan people (and especially the Pashtuns) feel part of their family, clan and tribe, but not of this Western construct of an “Afghan nation”.
    It is correct that the British helped create Indian nationalism, but not quite in the way you imply. They created one country (“India”) in the sub-continent, and when the means of communication began to flourish in it in the early 20th century, a sense of Indian nationhood began to sprout among literate inhabitants of this country. This nascent nationalism was then forged in the struggle for independence and spread widely among the masses. (It was only later, when independence became a tangible prospect, that older nationalisms began to arise among some sections of the population).

  7. curious says:

    game is over for afghanistan. It’s free for all phase.
    Everybody knows about such projects as oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China – Atasu-Alashankou. The second section of this pipeline is being put into operation. Moreover, the agreement on gas supply to China was signed between China and Turkmenistan.
    Gusev said that such famous U.S analysts as Zbignev Bzhezinsky, consider that the USA will be able to aim undermining activity of Islamic organizations for China to create chaos there. So, the USA will try to undermine its competitor (China), growing more and more, inside.
    “Last events in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous region testify that these attempts are being taken. It is so-called theory of governed chaos,” candidate of historic sciences, Gusev, said.
    He said that this state of affairs in Central Asia will preserve for a long time. “Moreover, Central Asian elite are easily outbid. The last example with U.S base in Kyrgyzstan indicates to it clearly,” expert said.

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